St. Irenaeus: “Against Heresies” For Practical Bible Study

As the church commemorates St. Irenaeus on June 28th, this is a particularly meet time to receive his counsel on how wisely to approach Scripture and to respond to mysteries we do not understand.


A student deciding to tackle Irenaeus’ Against Heresies can be forgiven if before long he skims and skips, for Irenaeus took pains to analyze any number of heretics and heresies of his 2nd Century. How exhaustive he was in going through all the heresies of the day, God only knows. But there is no doubt he is exhausting to all but the most obsessive church historians.

So at first glance Against Heresies might not seem very practical except as an excellent primary source of the post-apostolic church, especially of those many heresies Irenaeus so loved to mock and debunk. But deep into his work, Irenaeus decides to counsel how to approach Scripture in a way that avoids heretical speculations and also frustration that can harm faith. Irenaeus then becomes very practical indeed.

In Book 2, chapter XXVII, he writes that “a sound mind . . . devoted to piety and the love of truth will eagerly meditate upon those things which God . . . has subjected to our knowledge and will make advancement in them, rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study.” Let’s unpack that packed statement.

First, we should come to Scripture with a right attitude of “a sound mind”, not silly or inflated as the many heretics he debunked, but instead pious and loving truth. Of course, to him and to all Christians, loving truth means loving the Truth, Jesus Christ.

Second, we spend persistent time studying Scripture. We are in Scripture daily, and we meditate on it, we think on it. The Book of Common Prayer so guides us to be in prayer and Bible reading every day.

When Christians are faithful in studying the Scriptures, God renders “the knowledge of them easy,” or at least easier, both by their minds taking in more and more of His truth and by His Spirit assisting them. For Scripture is not esoteric. Its key teachings “are clearly and unambiguously in express terms set forth.” Knowledge of the written Word is not confined to those with exalted gnosis. Most of what Scripture teaches is quite clear. God has condescended to speak to children, us children. He speaks to the humble pious, not so much to the gnostic pompous.

But if, like the Gnostics, we twist or even disregard Scripture to put our inflated opinions and speculations above God and His clear teachings, then “various systems of truth, in mutual opposition to each other, and setting forth antagonistic doctrines” will proliferate and approach the number of the conceited fools who push them. These errant teachers and those who pay too much attention to them are “always inquiring but never finding.”

Irenaeus begins chapter XXVIII by reminding us that the chief purpose of “investigation of the mystery” is not to inflate our minds or “to cast away the firm and true knowledge of God” but to “increase in the love of Him who has done, and still does, so great things for us.”

Then he tackles the important question of how we should handle those times when we cannot find answers to all our questions in Scripture or when Scripture itself perplexes us. We certainly do “not on that account seek after any other God besides Him who really exists. For this is the very greatest impiety.” Instead, we continue to trust God. We remain “most properly assured that the Scriptures are indeed perfect.”

And we are humble and realize that our knowledge can never be perfect in this life. God is God, and we are not. The knowledge of many things belongs only to Him. So we should expect that not all our questions will be answered. We should expect that parts of Scripture will puzzle us. “We should leave things of that nature to God” and keep trusting Him.

And we should not trust our own knowledge and speculations too much. One can sense Irenaeus’ annoyance with the cornucopia of heretics when he vents, “Beyond reason inflated, you presumptuously maintain that you are acquainted with the unspeakable mysteries of God, while even the Lord, the very Son of God, allowed that the Father alone knows the very day and hour of judgment.” He then quotes Mark 13:32, this example of Jesus’ humility, and continues, “if, then, the Son was not ashamed to ascribe the knowledge of that day to the Father only . . . neither let us be ashamed to reserve for God those greater questions which may occur to us.”

And has not such humility been particularly needed in the church concerning questions of exactly when and how the end of this age will come about? Christ set this example well, and Irenaeus chose well to cite it repeatedly.

Irenaeus reminds us that St. Paul wrote we “know in part” (1 Corinth. 13:12) We should humbly accept that and “ought to leave all sorts of difficult questions in the hands of Him.” Thereby we avoid the peril of allowing our faith to be harmed by things we cannot understand and the opposite peril of presumption of supposedly knowing matters that God in His grace and wisdom has concealed.

More could be said, and Irenaeus said more — he was not terse! But his wisdom on how to approach Scripture could be succinctly summarized by Proverbs 25:2:

It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out. (ESV)

To search the scriptures is noble. (Acts 17:11) To dig as much truth out of Scripture as we can is praiseworthy. The church honors St. Irenaeus and other doctors of the faith who have excelled in so doing.

But as we search and dig and learn, we must also respect that God conceals a great many things. We should not let that discourage us but instead encourage us that God is God and therefore much more vast in truth than we can comprehend — and also remember that we are most definitely not God. Yes, we should have our faith with such humility and not fall into the presumption of thinking we can somehow reveal what God in His wisdom has concealed.

In other words, don’t become the sort of inflated fool Irenaeus would write about.

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is the Principal of Henry VI House in Corpus Christi, Texas and a Lay Reader in the Reformed Episcopal Church.

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